Monday, August 27, 2018

The Politics of Grief

Social media has made public grief a thing. In the past few weeks there has been a lot of public grieving over the deaths of several famous and well-known people, as well as expressions shared at the deaths of friends and relatives, and even of people we don't know (if there were particularly tragic circumstances involved). Death, as we all know, is inevitable.

Death, as we are beginning to learn, is also very political.

This weekend, we learned that Senator John McCain would discontinue treatment against the aggressive brain cancer, and within 24 hours of that statement, he passed away. People have used social media to express their condolences...and then others have used the opportunity to call the man everything but a child of God. Within the progressive community, there has been a debate about the appropriateness of mourning the death of McCain given his conservative voting record. And then there was the tweet by a certain President who shall remain nameless.

Nine years ago, I posted a status update in tribute to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who ironically had the same type of brain tumor. It came up in my Facebook memories, so I re-posted it and added a "RIP Senator McCain". Then as I continued to scroll, I noted that a few of my friends had taken issue with these expressions of grief, and a few went so far as to indict the tendency among black people to forgive everybody for everything. But if I thought that was the worst, then I saw a particularly nasty sentiment that was allegedly circulating on college campuses that celebrated McCain's death. Then there were the dinosaur digs--folks that went digging for examples of past social media hypocrisy with respect to the death of Senator Kennedy.

And wow. I don't have anything profound to say about any of this because it is so mind-boggling. How did we get to this point as a society? Whatever happened to saying nothing if there was nothing nice to say about someone?

When former First Lady Barbara Bush died, there was a period of dinosaur digging to dredge up her past statements about Hurricane Katrina victims and other tone deaf things she said in her lifetime. When the Rev. Billy Graham died, the dinosaur bones of his past neutrality on certain political matters resurfaced. I could probably go back through the obituary archives of this year, and invariably, there will be some pissing on the freshly dug graves of other public figures.

No one is safe--even us ordinary people are subject to having our deaths politicized. The victims of any mass shooting become martyrs for gun control/rights. The young woman who was killed in Iowa last week has become a martyr for immigration reform. The deaths of police officers and soldiers have become a third rail issue over patriotism. The opioid crisis has revised the debate over the decriminalization of drug use. Any mention of violence in Chicago evokes political responses. And let's not discuss what can happen if you leave behind some pissed off relatives.

I was raised in the church where there are elaborate rituals associated with honoring the dead. In addition to the formality of funeral etiquette, there are expectations of care for the surviving family members. I have lived long enough to see these ceremonies morph into theatrical productions, but I have also witnessed the other end of the spectrum where there has been little to no fanfare at all. I always felt that at least one constant was the notion of respect--that in our grief or indifference, we show some measure of reverence for the life that was and for the loved ones that mourn.

Since I am not an obituary writer, I am selective about the public figures that get featured on this blog for tribute. There are any number of reasons why I would or would not write about someone, but typically they are not political. I've written about entertainers such as Heavy D, Michael Jackson, and Prince, men whose music and life had an impact on mine. I've written about women who have inspired me, such as Gwen Ifill and Mary Tyler Moore. I did not write about Natalie Cole, which I realized when I sat down to write two Aretha Franklin tributes last week (and got their songs mixed up in my head), but I was not really a Natalie Cole fan. I won't have a formal tribute to Senator McCain because there will be plenty of better-written and more thoughtful remembrances offered by other writers, including what will be spoken at his funeral by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Therein lies my ultimate point--we don't always have to say something in every situation. The fact is, I have written about John McCain in the past, when he was alive and it was probably critical. I won't be linking to those past posts, but I can acknowledge that my political and personal views were divergent from his. At the same time, I can offer condolences to his widow, his children and grandchildren, (and his 106 year old mother), without tacking on any disclaimers.

Life is complicated and contradictory. All of us are human, which means we are all flawed and mortal. We are judged in life and in death for our actions, but there should be more restraint in how we assess the lives of others in the immediate aftermath of their death. I'm not suggesting that public figures should not be held accountable, nor am I suggesting that death absolves a person from their sins, but the dead person doesn't suffer from the sting of those postmortem critiques--their family does. Imagine the pain of losing a loved one, and then having to see a recitation of their worst moments recounted on social media before you've had a chance to process your grief.

Just say nothing. For all of the drama caused by the President's tweet, I actually think it was better that he didn't issue something longer and disingenuous. We already know that he didn't respect the man, and because this President is incapable of saying anything respectful about anyone, I'm sure that whatever else he could have said would have generated more controversy.

Hold your peace--not forever, but at least until after the funeral. And then let the dead rest.

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